Here's What You Need to Know: When it was all over, the 17th Indian Division was thoroughly wrecked.
The Japanese looked unstoppable. Two divisions of the 15th Army had crossed from Thailand into Burma in mid-January 1942, bent on capturing Rangoon before the British could land reinforcements and block the seizing of the Burma Road.
Burma was critical to the entire Allied defense of the Far East. By taking Rangoon and then the Burma Road, the Japanese would cut the vital land link to China, where half of the Imperial Army was already tied down fighting Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist forces. Burma was also the gateway to India, and Rangoon was the key to everything. In addition to being Burma’s administrative capital, it was a crucial communications and industrial center and had the only port capable of handling troop ships. The loss of Rangoon would mean the loss of Burma.
Organizing the Allied Defensive Forces
Opposing the two Japanese divisions fighting their way northward through the Tenasserim District of lower Burma was only the recently arrived 17th Indian Division, commanded by Maj. Gen. Sir John G. “Jackie” Smyth, who had won a Victoria Cross in World War I. Smyth was a courageous and dedicated soldier, but he was a sick man. In September 1941, he had undergone an operation for an anal fissure and piles, which had gone badly. Although pronounced fit for duty, by January 1942 he was still in constant pain, and in the light of subsequent events, it has been speculated that his military judgment was affected.
Smyth’s immediate superior was Lt. Gen. Thomas J. Hutton, general officer commanding, Burma Army. Hutton had been a very competent chief of staff to General Sir Archibald Wavell when the latter had been commander-in-chief, India. Wavell had named Hutton to command Burma Army shortly after the outbreak of war with Japan in December 1941. But Hutton was untested as a field commander, and his responsibilities in Burma were extensive and went beyond simply issuing orders to troops. He had requested a corps commander, but it would be March 1942 before one arrived. In the meantime, Hutton exercised direct control over just two divisions, the 1st Burma Division and the 17th Indian Division. These would be augmented in February with the arrival of the 7th Armoured Brigade at Rangoon. The 1st Burma Division was tied down in the Shan States of eastern Burma near the Thai border, awaiting a Japanese attack along that axis of advance.
Hutton still reported to Wavell, but Wavell’s position had changed with the advent of 1942. He had been named Supreme Commander of ABDACOM, the American-British-Dutch-Australian Command now responsible for defending the huge swath of territory lying between India and Australia. Wavell established his new headquarters in Java, some 2,000 miles east of Rangoon. Further complicating matters was the fact that though Hutton was subordinate to Wavell operationally, for administrative purposes he still reported to the C-in-C, India, the newly appointed General Sir Alan Hartley. Wavell’s geographical remoteness was to prove very cumbersome during the five critical weeks that ABDACOM directed the defense of Burma.
The 17th Indian Division’s components were hastily assembled in Burma during January and February 1942. Essentially, the division consisted of the 16th, 46th, and 48th Indian Infantry Brigades, plus troops, such as engineers and artillery, that answered directly to division headquarters. Smyth also exercised control over the 2nd Burma Brigade during the early fighting, notably in defending the important city of Moulmein. But the division was not a crack unit. As one writer has noted, “It had been in existence only a few months, training for the Middle East,” and was “pronounced unfit to face a first class opponent by India’s Director of Military Training.”
Ironically, that same director of military training, Brigadier D.T. “Punch” Cowan, was requested by Smyth to serve as the 17th Division’s second in command. He arrived at the front in early February.
Retreat to the Sittang Bridge
As the Japanese 33rd and 55th Divisions pushed through Tenasserim, Hutton insisted that Smyth follow a forward defense strategy. This meant that the 17th Indian Division would seek to delay the enemy advance at every key river barrier in an effort to buy time for reinforcements to land at Rangoon. The strategy was dictated by Wavell himself. But Smyth considered it folly to try to hold such positions as Moulmein and Martaban against determined assault by a superior number of battle-experienced (in China) enemy troops. He favored early withdrawal to better defensive positions closer to Rangoon, most notably behind the Sittang River, just 55 miles east of the capital.
Despite the argument, Smyth was forced to comply with the strategy of delay. The Japanese succeeded in taking their early objectives and by February 15 had reached the Bilin River, 35 miles below the Sittang. There, Smyth’s men fought a furious four-day battle that temporarily checked the enemy advance. Hutton authorized a withdrawal across the Sittang on February 19, but one of Smyth’s units broadcast the withdrawal order in the clear, and the Japanese intercepted the message. On the night of February 19-20, as Smyth began his pullout from the Bilin River line, Lt. Gen. Seizo Sakurai, commanding the Japanese 33rd Division, sent his 215th Infantry Regiment on an end-run around Smyth’s left flank in an attempt to seize the railway bridge across the Sittang intact.
Curiously, although Smyth had for weeks advocated a more rapid withdrawal, he now hesitated at a crucial time. There were two clear routes to the Sittang. One followed a railroad track, and the other, further inland, followed the trace of a road. The latter was not paved, but Smyth decided to send virtually the entire division along the trace to the Sittang Bridge—and the 17th Indian Division was totally dependent on its road-bound motor transport. The Japanese, on the other hand, had few vehicles and could move rapidly overland through the jungle.
A Crossing Without “Any Sense of Urgency”
With the withdrawal from the Bilin already under way, Smyth outlined his plan for crossing the Sittang at a conference on the morning of February 21. A small bridgehead on the east side of the river was being held by the much-depleted 3rd Battalion, Burma Rifles. Smyth proposed to strengthen the bridgehead by sending the 4th Battalion, 12th Frontier Force Regiment there in trucks ahead of the rest of the division, to be followed by Advanced Division Headquarters, engineers, and a few other units. Then the 48th Brigade would move to within 7-10 miles of the bridge, while the 16th Brigade stayed put at the Boyagi rubber estate four miles west of Kyaikto (a town about halfway between the Bilin and Sittang Rivers), and the 46th Brigade would form the division’s rearguard. Smyth envisioned no units crossing the Sittang on February 21, and the entire division crossing the bridge on the next day.
Major General Ian Lyall Grant, as a young man a participant in the first Burma campaign, has written, “This was an astonishing plan in view of the danger, indeed likelihood, of a Japanese outflanking movement both north and south. It showed a complete lack of any sense of urgency in getting across the Sittang. It was apparently influenced by the desire to rest the troops, who were certainly very exhausted by their four days of fighting at the Bilin River. But the result was that, on this vital day, the leading troops would only march 11 miles, and half the division would scarcely move at all. Brigadier [R.G.] Ekin [46th Brigade] was horrified. He saw clearly that a terrible risk was being taken.”
Lyall Grant went on to observe that Smyth was making a serious mistake, and that “the answer must surely be that his illness had affected his judgement.” But, “There can be no doubt that if he was really ill, as he seems to have been, it was also his duty to hand over command. He had an able deputy at hand and many thousands of men were relying on his judgement for their lives.”
In fact, on February 8, Smyth had taken the extraordinary step of writing a confidential letter to Hutton requesting leave in India. He had also remarked to Cowan upon the latter’s arrival in Burma that he thought it might be necessary to relinquish command. Cowan had replied that doing so in the midst of a tough campaign would have a disastrous effect on troop morale, and Smyth remained in charge of 17th Indian Division.
Louis Allen, who also fought in Burma, has noted that Smyth “would not uncover the Kyaikto area until he had more definite information about the strength and direction of the Japanese advance. There was no traffic control formation at the bridge either, so he thought it inadvisable to send so much transport back at once.”
Whatever the true reasons might have been for it, Smyth’s decision to engage in a carefully staged retreat to the Sittang would prove very costly. Brigadier Ekin “was very suspicious of the apparent lack of Japanese follow-up along the road. This indicated to him not that the Japanese were being sluggish, but that they were out-flanking” Smyth’s division, but as Lyall Grant added, “Smyth did not agree. He thought that the tentative Japanese follow-up was the result of the casualties inflicted in the successful fighting on the Bilin.”